Online Bible Commentary
Spies Stealing Our Liberty
Galatians 2:1 Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and also took Titus with me. 2 And I went up by revelation, and communicated to them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to those who were of reputation, lest by any means I might run, or had run, in vain. 3 Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. 4 And this occurred because of false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage), 5 to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you. (NKJV)
The Apostle Paul is writing to believers in southern Galatia from his home in Antioch, Syria in 49 A.D. He has just completed his first missionary journey in which he and Barnabas planted churches in southern Galatia at Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. This letter is the first of Paul’s letters.
The churches in Galatia have already turned from Paul’s gospel to a false gospel of a mix of works and grace instead of grace alone. This false gospel claimed that Christians must also follow the Old Testament law, including circumcision. So Paul is writing to them to direct them back to the true gospel.
Previous to this passage Paul has spent three years in Damascus and Arabia after his conversion. It is believed that most of this time was spent in Arabia where Paul received divine revelation that formed the basis of his gospel.
The period may not have been a full three years as the custom was to count the first and last years even though they may be partial years. The same is true of counting other periods of time. For example, when Christ was crucified His body was not in the tomb for three full days, but part of Friday, all of Saturday, and part of Sunday.
In this passage, “after fourteen years”, Paul takes Barnabas and Titus with him to Jerusalem (v. 1). The fourteen year period likely refers to the time since his conversion, which occurred about 35 A.D.
Paul’s trip to Jerusalem was prompted by the false gospel being spread in Galatia. Men from Jerusalem had been teaching the baby Christians at the Galatian churches that circumcision was required for salvation (Acts 15:1).
So Paul, responding to divine “revelation”, goes “privately to those who were of reputation”, a small group of church leaders in Jerusalem (likely Peter, James and a few other apostles), and explains his “gospel” of salvation by grace, not grace and works (v. 2a). After all, if the gospel he received by divine revelation is compromised his ministry will have been “in vain” (v. 2b).
This private trip laid the foundation for Paul’s second trip during this same year, 49 A.D., when the Jerusalem Council would meet and rule that circumcision was not required for salvation. Paul is writing this letter after the first trip but before the Jerusalem Council met.
God called Paul to make this first trip to elicit the support of the top leaders before the meeting of all the leaders at the Jerusalem Council. It would be important for Paul to have these top leaders on his side before discussions begin in the full Council.
Paul brings Titus, a Gentile, to this first meeting to make the point that he, Titus, is not required to be circumcised (v. 3). Producing a real life example, like Titus, may have shown the leaders how debilitating this requirement would be to spreading the gospel among Gentiles.
Paul then refers to these false teachers as “false brethren secretly brought in”, like spies, to steal “our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage” (v. 4). He calls them false brethren, meaning that they are not brothers, not Christians.
Next Paul writes that he and the top leaders did not agree to this false teaching “even for an hour”, so that the true Gospel “might continue” with the Galatian believers (v. 5). Thus he is saying that this false gospel does not have the support of the Christian leaders.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that salvation is by grace alone, not a combination of grace and works. The requirement of works requires us to do something. If that were true, we would receive the credit for our salvation instead of Christ. It is false teaching, a false gospel.
Those who teach this false gospel are like spies, stealing our liberty in Christ. Christ did all the work, when He died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. He has done it all. All we need to do is let Him live through us.